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Monday, September 21, 2009

The Third Man Factor

Whooo goes there...?

"The Third Man Factor" by John Geiger

A lot of people, faced with extreme or arduous circumstances, have sensed the presence of another surreal human, who mysteriously aids them in their recovery from the life-threatening circumstance.
"Popular science meets extreme adventure" is how one piece of promotion reads for "The Third Man Factor," a new volume about just such stories from author John Geiger, sent along to me from the publisher for review here. This is a book that straddles that ethereal world between science and the supernatural or mystical. As such, anyone interested in the whole genre of near-death phenomena will no doubt want to read this volume, while more hard-core science-types may not find it substantive enough for their liking.

The book focuses on something christened "the third man" phenomenon or syndrome, in which an individual in a highly stressful situation, even near death, perceives a vision of another individual who helps them survive their ordeal, sometimes merely through a supportive presence and sometimes with voice instruction. The additional presence (some would say "guardian angel") could actually be a second or fourth or fifth individual, depending how many people are suffering through the ordeal together (the "third" man label actually stems from an old T.S. Eliot poetical reference to the phenomena).

It helps Geiger's chronicle that many of the people with a tale to tell are not mere unheard-of John Does, but more historically-known figures, or in historical circumstances. Many are well-known in mountaineering literature, or from sailing or exploration adventures. Others come from the ranks of divers, pilots (including Charles Lindbergh), war prisoners, astronauts, and the book's first individual who was the last survivor out of the 9/11 World Trade Center collapse. One of the early and most well-known stories involves famous polar explorer Ernest Shackleton, who survived near catastrophe in Antarctica, back in January 1915, to tell of a fourth figure who eerily seemed to accompany himself and two comrades to almost impossible safety.

What all these cases have in common is extremely stressful circumstances, very often (not always) in a context of great monotony or sensory deprivation (such as a polar or mountainous environs) and great physical exertion as well. However, it is pointed out that children also commonly have vivid "imaginary" friends, and widows/widowers often lucidly sense the presence of their loved ones close by. Whether all such experiences are part of the same phenomena or represent very different phenomena is impossible to say. And whether some sort of alternate reality or pure-and-simple hallucination is involved will obviously be debated.

Geiger finds it odd that the idea that we are never truly alone, but always have potential access to such 'other' beings, has not been more fully studied. "The Third Man represents something extraordinary," he notes. So he himself investigated it for six years resulting in this volume which is largely a compendium of anecdotal reports from people who have experienced the phenomena. To his credit though, unlike some volumes that cover fringe science by merely stringing together such anecdotal tellings, Geiger does a good and fair job of interspersing the book with possible scientific explanations for such unusual phenomena. Indeed, he does such a good job that I'm not even clear what his final take on the syndrome is: is it a mystical or supernatural phenomena, or does it have a simple scientific explanation in terms of brain chemistry and the brain's need for stimulation... or possibly, he is settled on a middle ground, where there may well be a scientific explanation, but we are thus far a long way from grasping it...

This is a book that gets better as it goes along, especially the last 100 pages or so (chapter 9 on), which includes some of the most gripping narratives, but also some of the most fleshed-out scientific aspects as well. The author spends a surprising amount of time speculatively tying psychologist Julian Jaynes' controversial "bicameral" theory of right-and-left brain consciousness to the phenomena. Other scientists have discovered that stimulating certain areas of the brain with electricity can sometimes simulate the sensation of another human presence. Moreover, some people seem to be more "open" to the experience than others; indeed, while Geiger has collected 100's of accounts, 1000's of other individuals in any given year, experience harrowing, life-threatening circumstances, yet only a small percentage ever report the "third man" phenomena. Why do many die and only a select few get led to safety? --- the question is not merely why does this phenomena exist, but if it is real, why does it not exist more widely? "The Third Man represents a real and potent force for survival," Mr. Geiger concludes. His best guess as to why some people access the power and others fail to is what he terms "the Muse Factor," a psychological variable that simply makes some people, by their personality, more "open" to unusual experiences and ideas than others. Maybe...

It's difficult to deny that mystical, religious, supernatural-type experiences happen --- the question that is forever debated is whether ALL such experiences ultimately have a "scientific" explanation. And on that, "The Third Man Factor" leaves us hanging. I give the book a "B" (and the last third I'd rate even higher), and an explicit read for fans of the whole "near-death" or spiritual-encounter genre. It can definitely leave one with much pause for thought... if... you are open to such.

Another online review of the volume HERE.

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